To live without fear of death

Author: Ani Rapyan
Edition: Fear

Three years ago, Albert Dallakyan woke up from a coma with no idea of who he was or how he had gotten there.

A conscript in the Armenian army, Albert had been stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh. But he was not injured in clashes with Azerbaijani troops. He was shot due to gross negligence by his commanding officer. 

Out of the 76 soldiers who died in the Armenian Army in 2017 – the latest figures available – only 23 were due to enemy fire. Four died due to violating gun rules, like the incident that put Albert in the hospital. 

His parents, who raised their son in the town of Rustov-na-Donu in southern Russia, had not wanted Albert to join the Armenian Army. But when he was 18, just a year into university, he went to the Armenian capital Yerevan and enlisted to serve in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The family had worried he would be killed in combat. After the friendly-fire shooting, they sat at his hospital bed, afraid he would succumb to his wounds. 

Albert lived but the damage was extensive. The formerly healthy young man was in a coma for 28 days and temporarily lost his memory. He also lost the ability to walk and his sight was impaired. He became prone to seizures. 

"When I opened my eyes after coming out of the coma, I couldn't recognize anyone, not even my own mother. I had a feeling that I had seen her somewhere before, but I didn’t know who she was," Albert, 23, recalls.

"My eyesight was weak and blurry, I couldn't talk, I was not fully conscious. I started to understand some of what happened gradually. I was told I had a small injury."

The "small injury" was a massive trauma to his skull and brain.

Albert remembers his time in the army with fondness. He says being a soldier made him a much better and stronger man.

Once Albert realized how his condition was affecting his mother, he dedicated his energy to getting better. Not even the thought of the accident that put him in the hospital – a careless mistake by his commanding officer, according to a ruling by a court – could distract him from his treatment.

But there was a limit that could be done for him in Armenia. Following several months at the Central Military Hospital and the rehabilitation Center for Armenian Soldiers in Yerevan, doctors told him he would have to seek additional treatment in Germany.  

The surgeries, offered at a hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, cost $45,000. While Albert received some compensation for his injury, he and his parents did not have the resources to pay for the surgeries.

The Armenian government could also not pay the full amount. 

When the public learned about his plight, a crowdfunding page was created for him and the money was quickly raised. “Then I realized that I have to live for the people – those who were known to me and the strangers, who raised all the money for me. I saw that even kids donated 5-10 dollars,” Albert says.

 The surgeries, aimed at treating Dural arteriovenous fistulas – abnormal connections between arteries and veins in his head -- were complicated and risky. The doctors in Germany were surprised at Albert’s determination to make a full recovery. Albert says he felt he had an obligation to his family and all the people who had helped him get better.

“I knew that God was with me. I had earned a second chance at life and now I have started to fight for it,” Albert says. “Before I was scared, now I am not…What should I be scared of? Death? I beat it. The only thing I am afraid of is causing my parents pain.”

At the hospital in Heidelberg, Albert tried to put in more hours of physical therapy to help his recovery.

Anush, a physical therapist, has been working with Albert since the first time he regained consciousness following the shooting. Now they are good friends.

“If someone doesn’t want to, no one will be able to help – not the best specialists, not the best treatments,” Albert notes. “There were several guys with me in the hospital who were doing an hour of physical therapy and then resting the whole day. I couldn’t do that, I worked on myself till night. Some people wait to be told what to do, I always take the initiative.”

Over time, Albert relearned how to speak, he took his first steps and, slowly, he started to rebuild his life. Today, he is a student at Yerevan State University, studying economics and management. He is also learning English. 

But sometimes the pain of what he has lost sneaks up on him. Even today he is prone to losing consciousness. The ongoing repercussions of his injuries mean he can no longer do some of his favorite activities, like driving and sports. 

Cars are Albert's weakness. He bought his first car at the age of 15 with the money he earned. Today he dreams of owning and driving a car. "I will only feel like I have returned to a normal life once I can drive again," Albert says.

“When I don’t have anything to do, I concentrate too much on my problems. I feel a bit of pain, I start to be afraid of getting sick again. I always need to stay busy,” he says.

“I just want to feel fully human, to be the person I used to be.”

Doctors did not think he would survive and his family feared the worst. 

“When they transferred Albert to the Armenian Central Military Hospital, we had no hope. We were thinking that he will not survive even the plane ride to the hospital; that he would die on the way. But he proved that one can win over hopelessness,” notes Dr. Davit Arsenyan, one of the specialists who treated Albert.

Albert says he also lost hope at first. When he woke up from his coma, he felt like half the man he had been before his injury. “I was pretty big, and I had big muscles. But it seemed like some part of me had been cut off. Those were very difficult feelings. I didn’t want to do anything to live, to help the doctors until one day, through a door that the doctors left open accidentally, I saw my mother crying," he says.

"Then I realized that I have to overcome my fears and go forward, for the sake of not losing my mother.”

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